by Probe International

China’s energy actions speak louder than its climate pledges

China is hell-bent on increasing CO2 emissions to meet its often-stated strategic objective of world domination. Probe International’s Patricia Adams gets behind the charade on China’s climate change dance with the West.

Patricia Adams, Special to Financial Post

Smoke billows from smokestacks and a coal-fired generator at a steel factory in China. PHOTO BY KEVIN FRAYER/GETTY IMAGES FILES.

Read the original version of this article at the publisher’s website here

Last week’s climate change summit, though advertised as a meeting designed to get 40 world leaders to make pledges to cut carbon dioxide emissions and save the planet, was more a trade negotiation of sorts, in which the West wants China to make firmer commitments on climate change and China wants to tie any new commitments to weakened trade sanctions and less complaining about its human rights record.

The West may well water down sanctions in exchange for Chinese commitments but all it will get from China in return is lip service. China is hell-bent on increasing CO2 emissions to meet its often-stated strategic objective of world domination.

China’s Achilles heel is its dependence on foreign sources for its oil and gas, a vulnerability that the country’s super-planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, admitted last year for the first time. In its 2020 annual report to China’s official decision-making body, the National People’s Congress, it barely mentioned climate change as China instead pledged to “ensure energy security” to “improve our contingency plans in response to major changes in supply and demand at home and abroad.”

This year’s report, delivered to the People’s Congress on March 5, again gave short shrift to climate change — promising only what the West’s environmental NGOs decried as “baby steps” towards decarbonization. The focus instead was on the priority of securing energy supplies and China’s consequent determination to “promote the development of energy transportation routes, strengthen our energy reserve capacity, and improve transportation services. We will refine energy contingency plans, improve our risk and emergency response capabilities, and strengthen energy security and resilience.” The planning and reform commission concluded by promising to “boost oil and gas exploration and development” and “systematically increase our ability to ensure the supply of coal.”

China’s dependence on foreigners for its oil has grown steadily. In 2008, its dependence on foreign oil reached 50 per cent for the first time. Last year, it was 73 per cent. The trend is especially worrying to China because, while its oil imports increased by 7.3 per cent last year, its domestic production inched up a mere 1.6 per cent. Despite its drive for self-sufficiency, Chinese production since 2017 has stalled at 3.8-3.9 million barrels per day.

Moreover, most of its oil and gas imports pass through chokeholds — in the South China Sea, the Strait of Hormuz and especially the Strait of Malacca, connecting the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, through which roughly 80 per cent of China’s imported oil transits. China’s energy imports transit sea lanes controlled by other states, making its position precarious in the event of possible conflicts with Taiwan, Japan, India, or the U.S. The recent six-day blockage in the Suez Canal of a ship laden with Chinese goods only added to the urgency China feels in wanting to guarantee its security.

China’s determination to better secure its fossil-fuel supplies can be seen in its militarization of the South China Seas, where its navy, the world’s largest, protects both oil and gas tanker routes into China and the far-flung offshore oil and gas resources it is claiming. China has also been willing to risk U.S. sanctions by surreptitiously purchasing Iranian oil.

To minimize its vulnerability to interruptions at sea, China has also been aggressively developing overland oil and gas routes from Russia, from Burma, and from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang, China’s far-western Muslim province, whose Uighur population it sees as a security threat.

Of course, China’s most secure form of energy is coal, which in 2019 accounted for 58 per cent of its total energy consumption. That isn’t about to stop — certainly not because of hand-wringing in the West about how it imperils the planet. Last year, China’s 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power was more than three times the new capacity built in the rest of the world, and another 247 gigawatts of coal power is being planned or developed. China’s proposed additional coal plants represent 73.5 gigawatts of power, five times what is proposed in the rest of the world combined.

Developing the fossil fuels that China needs to meet its strategic economic and military goals is a top priority. Climate-change targets just don’t figure in China’s grand schemes, except for propaganda purposes or to extract subsidies or trade concessions.

President Xi may well promise to do more on climate change in exchange for the West turning a blind eye to its treatment of Uighurs or relaxing tariffs on its exports, and the West may well accept his promises, knowing full well they won’t be kept, so as to maintain the pretence of progress on the climate-change file. Climate change is a charade both sides act out for their mutual benefit.

Patricia Adams, an economist, is executive director of Toronto-based Probe International.

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